Author Archives: making7

Engineering Ethics: Trade Secrets

An area in which conflicts of interest often arise is in managing confidential knowledge, or private knowledge that belongs to some clients, but might benefit others.  This type of knowledge is called a “trade secret” and only those things that the owner of the knowledge has actively identified as protected qualify as trade secrets.

When an engineer is working as an employee, the work product of the engineer belongs to the employer.  (Note that this is NOT true of students working at a University, unless the students are actually producing work as employees.  The work you do for class is your own property).  There are two kinds of proprietary knowledge (also called intellectual property) that the employee might produce for their employer:

  1. Legally protected knowledge, such as a patent, trademark or a copyrighted work.
  2. A trade secret.

Patents and other forms of protected knowledge are public.  In fact, patent law is intended to spur innovation by allowing others to learn from the inventor, but not use it, which is why the Patent Office requires a public disclosure of all the details of an invention.

However, trade secrets are not disclosed and consequently not protected by law.  A professional engineer may not disclose the trade secrets that belong to their employers — not even after the are no longer employed.

Why?  Because it is unethical.  (There are also conditions under which this is illegal).

Only those things that the owner of the knowledge has actively identified as protected qualify as trade secrets.  For example, it is not unethical to disclose knowledge that has been patented, because that knowledge is already public.  Also, it is not unethical to disclose knowledge that an employer has not identified as secret.

Dr. Michael Loui explains:

Remember that not all trade secrets are patentable.  In fact, patent law requires a complete description of the invention.  The law is intended to allow others to learn from the inventor, but not profit from it.  Because not all intellectual property owners want to make the disclosures required by patent law, sometimes they choose not to file a patent, but instead attempt to keep the knowledge as a trade secret.

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Professional Engineering Ethics

Dr. Michael Loui says that all professions have codes of conduct.

“Avoiding injury to others by false and malicious action” evidently doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding injury to others by true or benevolent actions, if you can picture that.

The two professional societies that civil engineers are most often associated with are the National Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers and each publish their own codes of ethics.  Comparing the fundamental canons of each reveals that they are very similar, but not uniform.

The National Society of Professional Engineers is the oldest of the ethical codes, and focused on licensed engineers.  Because most licensed professional engineers are civil engineers, it seems sensible that the NSPE and ASCE codes should contain several similar provisions.  Both codes emphasize the importance of putting prioritizing public safety ahead of all other interests, which is consistent with an understanding of civil engineering as being in the service of civil society.

Notice in this clip that the hero argues that the needs of the public supersede private interests.  His wife’s rejoinder redefines the term “greater good” from a moral calculation that calls for individual sacrifice to a selfish optimization of personal utility.

The clip exemplifies the conflict that can exist for engineers working in business organizations.

One notable difference between NSPE and ASCE is the treatment of sustainability.  In the NSPE code, “sustainable development” is listed as a “professional obligation”, rather than a fundamental canon.  The ASCE code elevates the visibility of the “principles of sustainable development” by listing them as a fundamental canon.

Professional codes of ethics (or conduct) are typically preoccupied with the duties or obligations of those belonging to the profession, which is called a deontological approach.  They list rules of behavior to which  professionals are expected to conform.  Such rules are enacted to achieve predictable results as well as to provide a clear account of what behavior is considered ethical or correct in various circumstances. However, lists of rules are difficult to apply toward the broad systematic lens through which sustainability challenges are viewed. Sustainability problems can be unfamiliar, high-risk with highly unpredictable outcomes. In fact, the most difficult moral problems are those that exist outside the rules, were never anticipated by the rules, or require the professionals to exercise judgement with regard to violating the rules.  To effectively operate under these uncertain and unanticipated conditions, future engineers and scientists need to be able to handle surprising situations and be equipped to evaluate appropriate action where conflicting interests are at stake.

In this video, Dr. Loui explains consequentialist (a/k/a utilitarian) and deontological approaches.

One recent example of consequentialist reasoning is the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) decision in Spring 2011 to intentionally destroy levees protecting Missouri from record water flows in the Mississippi River.  When water levels on the Ohio river were projected to exceed 61 feet above flood stage at the Cairo, Illinois river gauge, the Corp ordered the detonation of explosives that would intentionally flood farms in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, but spare Cairo from sure destruction. The induced breach and flooding of the 53,824 ha of Missouri farmland resulted in the loss of 2011 crops (i.e., wheat, corn and soybeans) and caused damage to future soil productivity.

While the floodway was originally constructed in 1928, it had never been activated until 2008, despite earlier extreme flood events.  Taken in isolation, the floodway decision faced by the USACE in 2011 has elements of the classic consequentialist thought experiment known as the “Trolley Problem” (  However, the channelization and levee construction enacted by the USACE that was intended to protect communities may have perversely increased systemic flood risks. To the extent that the Mississippi River system acts as a complex system, the consequences of any single engineering action may be unpredictable and uncontrollable – i.e., resulting from hidden or multiple, interdependent causes – that undermine consequentialist reasoning. It is therefore imperative that students preparing for sustainability-related careers possess moral reasoning capabilities that are adaptive to unfamiliar and unexpected situations.

Photo from Olson KR, Morton LW. 2012. The impacts of 2011 induced levee breaches on agricultural lands of Mississippi River Valley. J. Soil & Water Conservation. 67(1):5A-10A. Copyright 2012 by the Soil & Water Conservation Society.

Moral theories provide bases for reasoning through problems that are not reducible to prior deontological prescriptions.  However, these theories may be in conflict.  For example, a professor may feel that deontological reasoning requires assigning a failing grade to a student that missed a significant assignment, in accordance with the rules in the posted syllabus.   Alternatively, the professor may feel that the consequences of a failing grade for this student are disproportionate, considering that the student only missed the assignment because they were participating in an extracurricular professional development event, such as an academic competition, conference, or Engineers Without Borders project.  In this case, the professor might elect to excuse the student from the missed assignments, by asserting a consequentialist argument.

One view that Dr. Loui neglects to explain is called virtue theory.  In this approach, ethics is a matter of aspiring to embody virtues such as honesty, generosity, or integrity.  These virtues can be in conflict with consequentialist theories — for example, in telling white lies for the sake of sparing the feelings of a friend.

In this last video, Dr. Loui explores a special application of professional ethics important to most Universities, and probably all engineering faculty: research ethics.  Most research active faculty belong to one or more professional societies, although they may not be professional engineering societies.  Many (but not all) researchers receive some minimal training in research ethics, but practices (such as order of authors) vary between disciplines.

One of the most accessible on-line resources to learn more about moral philosophy is found here:  More information on ethics in research and educational settings in particular can be found at http;//

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Introduction to Engineering Ethics

Dr. Michael Loui is an Engineering Education Professor at Purdue University (formerly Professor of Electrical Engineering at Illinois-Urban/Champaign) and a friend of mine.  He created a series of videos on professional engineering ethics that starts from the idea of engineering as a profession.

Notice that he mentions judgement as one of the critical characteristics of a profession.  But what does judgement mean?  An how does judgement separate a professional from a technician (i.e., someone with specialized knowledge and skills, but lacking the authority and expertise to make judgements)?

In my view, judgement is not a exhibited in strict adherence to rules (or codes), but in understanding when those rules and codes either don’t apply, need to be broken, or are inadequate.

Also, Dr. Loui makes a distinction between the old adage, “The customer is always right” and the obligation of a professional to advance the client’s best interest over their own.  This is the most important distinguishing feature of a profession — the professional is expected to set aside their own interests (such as profit) and work in the interest of society.  In return, they enjoy a privileged position within that society (so long as they uphold the implied social contract).

In this video, Dr. Loui shows how ethical responsibilities don’t always align with legal responsibilities.  Nor are ethical failures always attributable to single individuals.  Sometimes failures occur at a larger, systemic level.  This includes the responsibility of an engineer to accept responsibilities that have not been specifically assigned to them.

I experienced a situation very similar to the example Dr. Louis describes in the video above.  On a job interview while I was in graduate school, I was touring labs at a University where I was hoping to secure a job offer.  During the tour, I noticed their compressed air tanks were not tied off.  It’s an obvious safety violation.  I pointed this out to the faculty member hosting the tour.

I didn’t get the offer.

Nonetheless, my self-interest in making a good impression on the search committee should not supplant my professional obligation to protect the safety of the students working in the lab.  Here’s Dr. Loui on conflicts of interest.

Because engineers (as professionals) are required to exercise judgement, they must avoid situations in which their judgement is subject to question.  That is, they must avoid the perception that they are acting in their own self-interest, rather than the interests of their clients.  It undermines the social contract, and thus risks damaging the privilege enjoyed by all engineering professionals.

In the last video in this post, Dr. Loui makes a distinction between ethical decisions, rather than technical or other kinds of decisions.

There are several philosophical approaches to moral reasoning and they do not always agree.  The conflict between different moral ideas is a popular basis for comedy.  The famously successful television series’ Seinfeld and M*A*S*H were based entirely on exploration of moral issues.  Professional ethics education typically focuses on the duties or obligations of the professional to society.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind.  If it does not involve personal risk, or sacrifice on the part of the decision-maker, it’s not a moral decision.  For example, if you are getting paid to do the “right” thing, then this hardly constitutes a test of your moral character.

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Civil Engineering as a Profession

The first engineering discipline was military engineering — i.e., the design and construction of fortifications and the siege engines necessary to overcome them.  Civil engineering is called such to distinguish it from military engineering, and consequently civil engineers work in the service of civil society — i.e., public works, such as roads, bridges, dams, and waterworks or treatment plants.

The origins of Civil Engineering date back to Britain in 18th century. However, recognition of civil engineering as a formal program of study and a professional discipline in the United States came much later.  The first civil engineering degrees were awarded by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1835.  The first Ph.D. in engineering was awarded to J Willard Gibbs by Yale University in 1863.

Geographically, RPI was advantageously located in Troy NY, the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, the northern-most portion of the Hudson River still influenced by ocean tides, and proximate to the Military Academy at West Point, where military engineering was already established as a program of study.  The economic and social success of the Erie Canal had enormous consequences for the development of civil engineering as a profession, the expansion of powers of central government authorities, and the ascendance of New York City to the position it now enjoys as the financial center of the Western Hemisphere.

Engineering became a licensed profession in the early 20th century.  As then, licenses to practice engineering are now granted by the individual states.  Requirements vary between states (as they do for driver’s licenses), but in general license applications are acted upon by a State Board of Professional Engineers who judge the qualifications of individual applicants.  Some combination of education (typically from an ABET accredited program) and practical design experience is required to be eligible for licensure.  Additionally, applicants are required to pass two exams: the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam (typically first attempted in the senior year of an undergraduate engineering program), and the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam.

The argument for licensing usually hinges upon protection of public safety, as incompetent engineers might put the public at serious risk.  However, one additional practical consequence is to create barriers to entry to the profession, thereby increasing market rates that professional engineers may charge, and the increase in prestige that is associated with belonging to a profession.  Therefore, professional engineers have an incentive to self-police their own ranks.  Failing to punish “bad apples” would put at risk the privileges and subsidies enjoyed by the entire profession.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) published a Code of Ethics that all engineers are expected to adhere to.  Not surprisingly, paramount among the professional obligations of an engineer is the protection of public safety.  The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) publishes a code that is similar to the NSPE, as do other disciplinary-specific professional societies.

ASCE & NSPE ethical canons comparison

Most graduates of engineering education programs never become fully licensed.  Rates are highest among Civil Engineers, but even then less than half of all graduates from ABET accredited programs eventually become fully credentialed Professional Engineers (PE). The high rate among civil engineers is likely to due to the fact that many civil engineers are directed funded by government contracts (e.g., for design of public works) that require the work to be performed (or directly supervised) by a PE, who will stamp the design drawings.  By contrast, an electrical or computer engineer working on the design of a new microchip may gain no advantage from licensure, since the same requirement does not exist.

One of the defining characteristics of a profession is the expectation that practitioners (i.e., professionals) are able to set aside their own individual self-interest, and act for the benefit of others.  Professionals are expected to acquire and apply expertise.  As a result of having both a higher moral purpose and their expertise, professionals are typically empowered to exercise judgement, which we can understand as the knowledge to act in the absence of rules or guidelines (or when to break those rules).

This video from Dr. Michael Loui, from the University of Illinois explores the question, “What is engineering?” and whether engineering is a profession.

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Introduction to Peer Review and CritViz

Practice of engineering relies on peer review to improve work, catch mistakes, provide feedback and disseminate knowledge.  We use peer review in CEE300 for similar reasons.  In a previous post, we looked at a concept referred to as Network Based Education that described: Self Learning, Learning from a Teacher, and Peer-to-Peer learning. That particular blog post pointed out that peer-to-peer learning has some of the greatest potential for improvement and is subject to the Network Effect in which more students = more knowledge = more interaction = a better experience for everyone.

Now we can start describing what this “better experience” is in relation to Peer-to-peer learning. To start, let us take Howard Rheingold, the man behind the Peeragogy HandbookPeeragogy can be simply defined as self-organized peer learning. The handbook itself is a resource for co-learning based around the Peeragogy concept of peers learning together and helping each other to learn. The Peeragogy project seeks to empower the worldwide population of self-motivated learners who use digital media to connect with each other, to co-construct knowledge of how to co-learn.

The Handbook provided 29 chapters of information, too much to grasp at once, so the following is a summary of some of the general concepts the handbook promotes:

We are human because we learn together. Ever since the ye old days, people have gained experience, knowledge and progress by working with, collaborating and communicating with the people around them. “It is the essence of human culture”. Why change that now?

“Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” – John Dewey.  Engage, participate and be present. You might actually learn a thing or two if you do.

Ideally, the need for peer review should not exist! In a perfect world. People should be in constant and open peer review dialogue so that the need for a formal peer review wouldn’t be necessary.  To make this ideal situation a reality, it starts with small steps. It starts with questions and curiosity, with in class assignments and with the desire to make yourself and others better.

Personal Supports Peer.  How we cultivate living, responsive webs of inspiration and support that help us be more effective learners. It is the “personal learning network”

Peer Supports Personal.  You have something to offer and something to learn. You can learn a lot from your collaborative efforts.

Peer-to-peer review is a teaching technique widely used in design disciplines, like the arts.  In courses where students are expected to create original artwork, it’s essential that they understand how to give and receive what is called critique.

But peer review is also an effective way to teach writing, which is an important learning objective in CEE300.  The following video, No One Writes Alone, provides some noteworthy tips for how to be an effective reader providing feedback to a peer author:

  • Provide the experience of the reader, don’t get caught up about what you “ought to say”
  • Be constructive and provide your perspective
  • Remember that you are a collaborator – be focused and specific
  • Point out what they did well (but don’t overdo it)
  • Ask Questions, be curious – Even the most basic questions can help
  • Help improve the quality of the work


Welcome to CritViz

Critviz is a program that was created specifically for the purpose of Peer Review by two professors, Loren Olsen and David Tinapple, from the School of Arts, Media and Engineering here at ASU. This is a beta or trial program that these professors originally designed to fit their classroom needs but since doing so, has allowed other classes to give the program a try.

To sign up for CEE300 Fall2016 on Critviz, navigate to and use the CEE300 course code IJKSHLEB.

College Grads Lacking Professionalism In The Workplace | Come Recommended

According to a recent study called “Professionalism in the Workplace Study” my course, CEE300 – Engineering Business Practices, is not yet properly organized for professionalizing my students.  Although I certainly emphasize interpersonal and communications skills, and explicitly address ethics, CEE300 places scant attention on personal appearance, does little to teach time management (although it does expect time management).  Here’s the take-home message from the survey:

“From an HR standpoint, the most essential qualities of professionalism are listed below:

  • Interpersonal skills (33.6%)
  • Appearance (25.3%)
  • Communication skills (24.9%)
  • Time management (20.8%)
  • Confidence (20.7%)
  • Ethical (15.2%)
  • Work ethic (14.2%)
  • Knowledgeable (9.3%)”

Here’s the link to the full article that describes the main findings of the study:

College Grads Lacking Professionalism In The Workplace | Come Recommended.

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How do hiring decisions get made?

The Undercover Recruiter recently posted advice for job seekers that claims 55% of the impression an applicant will make in a job interview is based on their “dress, act, and walk.”  This reinforces the idea that personal appearance is an essential aspect of professionalization — albeit not one usually addressed in college courses like CEE300 – Engineering Business Practices.

Here’s some other highlights:

  • 33% of bosses know within the first 90 seconds of an interview whether they will hire someone
  • 65% of bosses indicate that clothes could be a deciding factor between two almost-identical candidates (see: What To Wear To An Interview).
  • 67% of bosses say that failure to make eye contact is a common nonverbal mistake.

See the entire infographic here: How Interviewers Know When to Hire You in 90 Seconds.

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